Graduate student TAs discuss feeling overworked by NU


Daily file illustration by Lily Ogburn

Northwestern TAs struggle to balance individual coursework and demanding workloads.

Samanta Habashy, Reporter

Second-year Ph.D. student in history Alison Choi said she felt physically and mentally relieved after finishing the teaching assistant requirement for graduate students.

Choi said going to campus four days a week took a lot out of her along with the need to be accessible to her students through office hours or virtually.

“Figuring out a balance between grad school and TA-ing is a skill while trying to take care of myself, and sometimes I find myself prioritizing being a TA over my well-being,” said Choi, who is also a history department union organizer for Northwestern University Graduate Workers.

TAs are an integral part of every NU department. TAs pursuing a Ph.D. must teach for about three years out of the usual 5- or 6-year program, and most graduate student TAs are required to work the job two quarters each year. 

Typically, TA duties include grading assignments, leading discussion sections and holding office hours to assist students and answer questions. They manage this workload on top of their graduate school coursework.

Choi said she doesn’t have much control over the classes she assists, the content the professor chooses to teach or the readings assigned in classes.

“Our title is ‘graduate workers’ because we’re simply there to work and not make any decisions, but it’s up to us how we run our discussion sections,” Choi said.

She added TAs also don’t receive any teaching training prior to starting.

Fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in screen cultures Jennifer Smart said leading a discussion section was harder than she initially thought. 

One challenge she faced was how to be intentional with framing the questions she asked in her discussion sections.

“A big part of the effort that I expend on a discussion section is coming up with questions I think students will want to engage (with),” Smart said. “Asking open-ended questions sometimes doesn’t make for a productive use of the students’ time.” 

Choi said she had to teach herself these skills as she continued to TA.

Before becoming a TA, Choi shadowed one during her first year of graduate school. There, Choi said, she first experienced the power dynamic between TAs, students and professors. She said being a woman of color as a TA was a “distinct experience” because she felt she wasn’t as authoritative as her white male coworkers. 

Choi said she tries to ensure everyone’s voice is heard during her discussion sections. She added that her identity influences her teaching style.  

“When I was introduced as a grad student, the students looked at me and expected me to say something important,” Choi recalled. “I then had a responsibility as a future instructor, and I’ve since rooted my teaching style to focus on women of color and feminism, creating a safe, accountable space to learn and grow.”

But balancing graduate school coursework and TA responsibilities can make some TAs feel burnt out and undervalued, according to Choi.

“The time that we spend grading papers or exams often overlaps with our own final assignments, and that’s when it can get pretty busy and stressful,” Zixin Zeng, a first-year graduate student in psychology and TA, said.

Some graduate student workers have been pushing for change within the system.

NUGW advocates for fair working conditions and fair pay for graduate student workers, including TAs. The minimum annual stipend rate for Ph.D. students in 2023-24 is $36,960, according to the NU Graduate School website. 

Choi believes the stipend is not enough pay for how much TAs work. 

“(The stipend) does not account for the differences in labor; some discussion sections might have eight students and others might have 18, but you get paid the same and are expected to work more,” Choi said.

Smart said being a TA is a very “nebulous” job category because there’s not much structure to it and she has to figure it out as she goes.

NUGW also hopes to create boundaries between TAs and professors by establishing more regulations on TAs’ duties according to Smart.

“The duties are not very well defined. And it kind of takes a while to grasp because things drastically change from quarter to quarter, and I think the lack of consistency makes it a weird job,” Smart said.

Despite the struggles, Zeng said being a TA provides a beneficial teaching and instructing experience. She said it’s meaningful to see how the professor lays out the content of the course and interacts with students.

Choi said there are resources out there to help TAs through the process but she takes a breather when she is not working. She said she does not have much control over her day or workload when she is.

“TA-ing can be really rewarding, but there’s talk of how the University should account for the intense labor that TAs are required to do to minimize the frequent burnout that comes with the job,” Choi said.

The Daily reported incorrectly that History Department TAs ‘don’t receive any teaching training prior to starting’ and failed to seek a comment from the department. In fact, graduate student TAs in the History Department receive training before and during their service as TAs. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @HabashySam

Related Stories: 

Northwestern Graduate Workers continue pushing for unionization, form group for disabled students

NU’s undergraduate teaching assistants lead with experience

Northwestern University Graduate Workers reports survey results on graduate students’ needs